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A world of wonder
Written by Alex Massie
14 January 2021
These are gloomy, fretful, times but while it is easy to be swaddled in melancholy just now, there are, despite everything, reasons to be cheerful. The news is not all bleak. To take but one illuminating example, Science reported last week that a major breakthrough in the struggle to find a treatment, and perhaps even a cure, for multiple sclerosis might very well have been made.
Researchers at BioNTech – the German company now famous for its mRNA breakthrough that provided the basis for Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine – have, in collaboration with scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, developed another mRNA treatment that might first retard the onset of multiple sclerosis and even, possibly, reverse its effects. A trial on mice “blocked all clinical signs of MS” and “when smalls signs of disease such as paralysis of the tail were noted, the treatment prevented further disease progression and restored motor functions”.
Clearly, this is only a first step, albeit one that will be of considerable interest in Scotland since, for reasons that remain mysterious, the prevalence of MS is notably higher here than in other parts of the United Kingdom, let alone the rest of the world. But it is also evidently a significant leap forwards in the search for a treatment and, equally importantly, only one of a number of promising trials currently in development.
Medical research is a land of false dawns, of course, and it remains prudent to temper expectation with realism; many initially promising breakthroughs peter out. Even so, while individual experiments may fail, the general picture of astonishing, once unthinkable, progress is clear. It may not happen this year or next year or even this decade, but the direction of travel is evident.
Nor is this progress confined to MS and other hitherto intractable conditions. Cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled in the past 40 years. Here too the journey is far from complete and the variation in cancer survival rates – from extremely good (testicular) to very poor (pancreatic) – is a reminder of how much further there is to go. But for most of the most common cancers, five- and ten-year survival rates are at a level that might have been unthinkable just a generation ago.
From which we might draw this conclusion: the speed at which the world has changed in the past 40 years – itself dizzying when you pause to contemplate it – is as nothing compared to how that change will accelerate in the next 40. A child born in 1900 had perhaps a one in a 100 chance of living to be 100 years old; one born in a western, developed, country today may have a better than 50:50 chance of doing so. If you are in your fifties now, you may still expect to live into your nineties.
This portends nothing so much as a total transformation of what it is to be human. So much so, indeed, that it is scarcely imaginable and, consequently, beyond the capacity of politicians – tasked with fighting day-to-day fires – to deal with it. To offer one example: from time to time a controversy erupts over modest attempts to increase the age at which one qualifies for the state pension. In Scotland, in particular, this typically occasions howls of protest and, indeed, the new report delivered by the Scottish government’s Citizen’s Assembly recommends lowering the age at which the state pension is awarded.
This is fantastical for many reasons, and while attention typically focuses on the financial cost of failing to increase the pensionable age, the better argument for doing so is that we shall be living longer, more productive, lives. Already the number of people in the UK working beyond the age of 65 has doubled since 2004. That trend will continue.
Of course, these advances are not distributed equally. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor is measured in lifestyle terms as well as economic ones. Narrowing that divide is an acute long-term challenge for policymakers too, just as the mantra of ‘lifelong learning’ is of less use to those who do not have the advantage of a thorough educational grounding in their formative years than it is to those who do.
Still, one need not be a starry-eyed futurist very much in love with the promise of technological and medical salvation to appreciate that the current moment is one on the brink of total transformation. For all that it can sometimes be difficult to recall the pre-internet era – always on, always connected – we are in truth still in its early stages. We glimpse the future and know it will be very different but still lack the means – perhaps even, in most cases, the imaginative bandwidth – to fully picture it.
The rise of machine learning and automation is something we know is coming but the precise manner in which it will manifest itself, and change every aspect of our lives, remains unknowable. At one level, we must acknowledge the possibility humans will in large respects make themselves redundant. That leads to a very different way of living, just as surely as the elimination of the internal combustion engine and, in time, of animal husbandry (for we shall eat meat grown in labs, not fields) will remake both the environment and our engagement with it.
Not all of this will be welcome, for large-scale and rapid change never is. There will be many casualties and many orthodoxies will be destroyed. But, overall, there are more grounds for optimism than pessimism. Just as the world of 2021 is a better one than that of 1921 – happier, freer, healthier and more prosperous – so there are reasons to think that of 2121, however unimaginable if may be, will be better still. Today’s children may not realise it yet, but they live in the early stages of a world of wonder.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.